Photos: Aphra Evans
It’s Wednesday morning at Kingsdown Sports Centre and the hall is full. At one end, a dozen people twist their bodies on yoga mats. A woman in an orange tunic and matching head wrap reaches for the sky. A shuttlecock smacks at the other end; friends laugh as they knock up on three badminton courts. Music pumps in the gym upstairs.
With its sprung wooden floor, competition-standard squash courts and five full-sized badminton courts, Kingsdown Sports Centre is a unique asset. This is the city’s busiest badminton hall, home to prestigious clubs that have trained England players and world champions. Bristol & District Club’s history in Kingsdown pre-dates the current building; members played at Kingsdown Swimming Baths until it was demolished in the 1960s.
Plans for the contemporary sports centre included a replacement pool; this was scrapped due to the council’s ‘trimming of spending’, one newspaper reported at the time. Instead, the centre hosted ‘minority sports such as squash and badminton’. Kingsdown now runs classes and events from spinning to indoor paintball and virtual reality gaming.
But Bristol City Council plans to stop operating Kingsdown Sports Centre and Knowle’s Jubilee Pool, calling them ‘tired and ageing facilities’ that ‘do not meet the full expectations and demands of Bristol’s residents’. The money will be diverted into Horfield Leisure Centre, Easton Leisure Centre or Bristol South Swimming Pool in Bedminster, with a public consultation open until November. Without community asset transfer (CAT) or private takeover, Kingsdown and Jubilee will close in March 2023.
More than a pool
Jules Laming sits outside Jubilee Pool. The 1930s art deco building has solid dark bricks and cast-iron drain pipes. Pots of flowers bask in the sun. A faded banner declares ‘WE LOVE JUBILEE’ – evidence of years of fighting to save it.
“It’s an exhausting thing to do,” Jules says. “People are tired. But underlying that is a sense of injustice and a sense that what we’re doing is the right thing – and if we don’t fight, nobody else is going to save it. Its loss would adversely affect so many people.”
Locals successfully fought the council’s plans to close the pool in 2011 – a cost-saving measure after building £32m Hengrove Park Leisure Centre just two miles away. Friends of Jubilee Pool, which Jules is part of, was set up in 2017 during another closure attempt.
After the first Covid-19 lockdown the pool remained closed, so the group mobilised and the doors reopened after 4,500 people signed a petition. In August 2020, the council began a consultation about the pool’s long-term future. Of more than 1,800 respondents, 96% said they did not want the pool to close.
But with the council’s plan to cease operations looking likely, Friends of Jubilee Pool are pursuing CAT to lease the building and take on its management – currently contracted out to Parkwood Leisure. The Friends have submitted an expression of interest and must prepare a fully costed business plan, including up to £190,000 of essential maintenance work. It’s a long and challenging process. Jules says other groups’ CATs have taken over two years.
“The council see this as a building that’s at the end of its life and they don’t consider it financially viable to maintain,” Jules says. “I understand that there are financial constraints but I think it’s short-sighted because it doesn’t reflect the implications of not having a pool in terms of health, wellbeing, community cohesion, friendships.
“This part of south Bristol has some of the highest rates of obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease. It’s classified as some of the most deprived parts of the country, let alone the city. To start taking away facilities that are cheaper to use and provide people with the ability to keep fit is insane.”
While Bristol South Swimming Pool and Hengrove Park are only a few miles away, many consultation respondents told the council they were not viable options. Hengrove’s busy 50 metre pool costs a third more for an adult swim and is over an hour’s round trip by bus from Knowle.
“This is why it’s important,” Jules says passionately, as adults with learning disabilities and their support workers climb Jubilee’s steps. The staff member on reception greets people by name. “Hello! It’s nice to see you again!” she says to one woman.
Jules says: “It’s about people’s lives. This pool can accommodate people with special needs or disabilities. The small and inclusive nature really works for people with autism and sensory disabilities because it’s not overwhelming. It’s really important that people can come somewhere that they perceive to be – and is – safe. It’s so much more than a swimming pool.”
History at risk
While Jubilee Pool has faced closure for years, in Kingsdown it has come as a shock. Everyone Active staff at the centre first heard the proposals on local radio. A petition started by Cotham’s Green councillors has over 1,000 signatures, but the CAT process would be a major feat of organisation. It’s hoped Badminton England and England Squash will lend support.
Nigel Birkett has been playing badminton at Kingsdown for 38 years. He chairs Beaufort, one of the country’s oldest clubs: “We’ve got a real history and the membership has evolved over time. We’ve got old members, young members, diverse ethnicities, diverse genders.”
Nigel’s grandson used to play in the junior sections. There have been countless training sessions, matches and pub trips. Nigel recuperated from a hip replacement in 2018 by joining Kingsdown’s gym and playing gentle badminton, at sessions “for over 60s with bits of their body replaced or missing!”
Bristol & District, Beaufort and LGBT+ club Bristol Swifts face uncertainty without Kingsdown. “It’s almost impossible to get courts. We would have nowhere to go. We would shut,” says Fiach O’Rourke, who founded Bristol Swifts three years ago. The club has 150 players and hosts the largest international LGBT+ badminton tournament in the UK.
“Horfield Leisure Centre is full. We’ve tried the schools – all of them are full. There is no space in Bristol for additional clubs, or for clubs to grow. The University of Bristol’s badminton teams use Kingsdown for their matches because there is not enough space in the university. It’s exceptionally ill-informed.”
Kingsdown’s proximity to the University of Bristol’s Indoor Sports Centre has influenced the council’s decision – along with stagnating membership, Kingsdown’s location in a relatively affluent area, and the extra subsidies it receives because it has no pool.
A Bristol City Council spokesperson said: “We are determined to deliver on our commitment to public health, sport and exercise, to reduce the stark health inequalities which exist between different parts of the city.”
They added the seven council-owned facilities that will stay open in the proposal, serve the highest number of users and the areas of greatest deprivation.
“Local communities and users of these facilities are best placed to operate them and to access funds for further investment and upgrades, and the transfer of one or both of those sites to be run as part of a CAT, or to another commercial operator, would be welcomed.
“The consultation is an opportunity for the community to both express their views on these proposals and offer any ideas and solutions of their own on working with us over taking forward the operation of facilities in the future.’’
The consultation is open until 7 November. Until the results next year, the future remains uncertain.
“There will be real sadness if Kingsdown goes – there’s history there for a lot of people,” Nigel says. “Changing the council’s mind – it’s like a brick wall.”